With the first day of school just weeks away, dozens of students in Bloomfield and Manchester are still waiting to learn where they will be attending class.
The students had been accepted to attend Hartford host magnet schools, but recently learned that if their home districts don't pay the $4,600 in tuition that Hartford school officials say is necessary to close the gap between what they receive from the state and what it costs to educate them, they will have to return to their local school district or seek alternatives.
"We're stuck in the middle. Our kids are excited about going to this new school and now it's 'Sorry, you can't go.' It's just not fair," said Euniqua Lewis of Manchester, whose daughter, Tajanae Davis, 10, planned to attend Hartford Middle Magnet School. Manchester has refused to pay the tuition.
Lewis, like many other parents, has already bought school uniforms and stocked up on summer reading list books, attended orientations and filled out reams of school paperwork.
She and other parents said they don't understand why they were never informed about this possibility earlier, in time to make alternate plans.
"At no time were we warned this was a possibility — that accepted students may be un-enrolled from the school," Manchester parent Claudia Mosley said.
Manchester currently sends 233 students to 10 Hartford host magnet schools. Hartford will allow those students to attend school in the city this school year with no tuition, but it is refusing to enroll 41 new students scheduled to start this fall because Manchester won't pay their tuition. Bloomfield is in a similar situation: More than 200 currently enrolled students will continue with no tuition, but 25 new students have been turned away.
"We have reluctantly made a decision to enroll Manchester and Bloomfield students who have been attending our schools at Hartford taxpayer expense because it would be a detriment to the children," said Hartford Superintendent Steven A. Adamowski.
Adamowski said the tuition would help cover the difference between the $6,000 that Gov. M. Jodi Rell has proposed giving to hosting districts for each student and what it costs the district to educate them.
The point might become moot if the legislature adopts a budget that includes state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan's recommendation of sending hosting districts $13,000 per student or another proposal to give Hartford schools $3.5 million to cover its magnet schools deficit this year. But without a budget in place, Adamowski said he had no choice but to refuse the new students without an agreement from the sending districts.
But Manchester Superintendent Kathleen D. Ouellette, who mailed a letter to parents of the affected new students this week to explain her district's position, said that there is no legal basis for Hartford to charge Manchester tuition. In fact, Hartford's former school superintendent had signed agreements with Manchester not to charge for tuition or transportation, she said.
"For many years, this financial arrangement was acceptable to Hartford and understood by both Hartford and Manchester," Ouellette said.
Manchester also has refused to pay $32,500 for students who attended Hartford's Classical Magnet School last year on the same grounds.
Manchester has not budgeted for the new tuition payments, she said. Trying to come up with the estimated $1.1 million to pay for all 233 Manchester students this year would put a big hole in Manchester's already pared-down budget, Ouellette said.
Ouellette also pointed out that Hartford receives "significant" money from the state for each suburban student who attends these Hartford magnets.
The state gave Hartford $6,730 for each suburban student and $3,000 for each of its own students who attended a Hartford magnet school last year, said Tom Murphy, a state Department of Education spokesman.
Manchester, meanwhile, gets to keep its education cost-sharing dollars from the state for students it sends to a Hartford magnet school, he said.
Adamowski, who advocates for all state and local funds for education to follow students wherever they attend school, said that Hartford simply can't afford to continue subsidizing suburban students, especially in light of the Sheff ruling, which mandates increased enrollment of those students in the coming years.
Adamowski said a state statute passed in 2007 also supports the district's decision to charge tuition.
"This is an unfortunate blip. The good news is that it's limited to two districts," he said. "In the main I would say the suburban districts have been good about paying tuition."
City schools spokesman David Medina said 25 sending districts have indicated that they will pay the tuition if it is necessary.
Hartford, Adamowski said, also will send about $6 million to suburban districts this year to educate Hartford students.
Ouellette, who said that Manchester has worked well with Hartford in the past and fully supports the magnet school concept and diversity goals, also placed blame on the current funding mechanism.
"This would be a nonissue if the state fully funded the host magnet schools," she said.
Meanwhile, Murphy, who acknowledged that all the parties involved are in part right, said that the state Department of Education is planning to bring the superintendents from Bloomfield, Manchester and Hartford together for a meeting to try to work out a compromise and hopefully get the affected students enrolled in the schools of their choice.
"Holding students and parents at bay creates a lot of anxiety and it's not right," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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